May Day was celebrated in Cambodia with rallies and calls for better working conditions, but there was not much to celebrate.
In April, Cambodia’s National Assembly passed a trade union law that falls well short of the International Labor Organization’s conventions and human rights standards that Cambodia is obligated to uphold. The law prohibits new, unregistered unions from carrying out legitimate union activities. It grants authorities power to interfere with union independence under the guise of auditing and reporting, and it severely curbs unions’ ability to bargain collectively and strike.
Among this law’s many bad elements, one bright spot is a provision that calls for transparency on union registration. It says the Labor Ministry must maintain union registration records and further that the ministry “may” regularly publish such records. Considering how opaque the government is about its actions on unions, even this small step could help workers’ rights. This discretionary power should be made a requirement and part of a larger reform agenda. In the interim, donors and apparel brands should insist on more transparent processes and public reporting by the Labor Ministry.
The Labor Ministry’s closed union registration process has been a massive problem for independent unions. Unions and workers’ rights activists have long asserted that Cambodian authorities were arbitrarily denying union registration applications, but they had to scrounge to collect information to prove it. Around late 2013 and early 2014, in the aftermath of massive minimum wage protests, labor rights groups and local unions raised concerns that Cambodian authorities had in effect suspended all union registration, a claim the government denied. However, Human Rights Watch obtained information that in 2014 and early 2015 Labor Ministry officials would not register new unions or even accept applications.
This kind of information should not be hard to obtain. The government should make the entire system of union registration transparent and publish union registrations. That would promote a more efficient process and help workers know where their unions stand.
Another aspect of the Labor Ministry’s work that would benefit from transparency is its labor inspection system. Bangladesh is rarely a model on workers’ rights, but on transparency in inspections, it’s a helpful starting point for Cambodia. Following the development of the Sustainability Compact in Bangladesh, donors have helped Bangladesh’s Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments create a database of all factories that are monitored by initiatives set up by brands (like the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Accord and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety) or department officials. The summaries of inspection reports are available online. This public reporting should be replicated and built upon in Cambodia.
The Cambodian labor inspectorate’s work has mostly remained in the dark and is mistrusted because of allegations of corruption and suspicions that inspectors look the other way on labor law violations.
In 2015, the Labor Ministry put out one-time public information about the number of factories inspected and fined. But the information was vague and did not detail what the inspectors actually looked for or what they found. There is no information about the regulatory actions labor authorities take when they find a problem—for example fines imposed and whether the factories paid. Labor rights groups have repeatedly questioned the veracity of government labor inspections and the methods used to hold errant factories accountable. Also unknown is the amount of money the government sets aside and spends on labor inspections.
Recently, union leader Pav Sina publicly questioned the quality of labor officials’ work. But the Labor Ministry did not provide any answers. Nor did it encourage trade union involvement in making factories safer and more respecting of rights. Instead of responding to such criticism by providing the information, labor officials are now reportedly suing him.
Several years ago, Cambodian labor authorities initiated a process with the ILO to shore up the quality of government labor inspections. Donors supporting this effort should insist that Cambodia’s labor inspectorate reports transparently on the specifics of its work through an online database.
Leading international clothing brands sourcing from Cambodia are already concerned about the trade union law and its impact on workers’ rights. In a globally competitive industry, Cambodia cannot risk more damage to its reputation on labor rights in the garment industry. One way forward is for Cambodia to come together with the E.U. and other key donor countries to negotiate a Sustainability Compact, as was done in Bangladesh, outlining specific commitments from Cambodia on labor rights and inspections. Transparency should be central to such an initiative.
Transparency is not a panacea for the range of problems Cambodian workers face. But it can bring about significant changes that might at least inspire some confidence in a Labor Ministry that thus far has been seen as having a lackluster performance and provide a catalyst for honest and effective enforcement.
Phil Robertson is the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.